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Narrating a Proto-Minimalist Misfire. Or Noland’s Largeness...

Thank you very much for the invitation to speak today and open your conference on space, time and movement: crucial problems in the modernist paintings of Kenneth Noland that I will speak about. It’s a great honor for me and a very daunting task. Daunting, because, well, Noland’s painting has a bad rep, is dismissed as Greenbergian, and as you can see from this installation shot from 1963 very much behaves as we think abstraction from the 50s and 60s should behave. His is a reduced and often, I think, quite stale looking vocabulary, with very little purchase on space –it's flat; time—it's instantaneous in the tradition of the symbol; and in terms of movement –not really much of that in evidence either. But these are crucial problems as I will argue, and what makes the task of argument all the more daunting is that in Noland’s painting space, time and movement strike a double register. They are literalized in one’s experience of the work, and also bring into focus questions of temporality and performatives: temporality being the heir of a long philosophical tradition and performatives being part of an attempt to think that legacy as an aesthetic suture [I’m glossing]. The fact that performatives “misfire” or are “pure acts” is part of this history, and a large part of my worry. You could call this my “performance anxiety” and you will see why this bad sexual humor is appropriate in a moment. The essay I present is part of a larger project on Modernist Abstraction in the 1950s and 1960s I am working on. I am interested in those artists usually dismissed as Greenbergian modernists. Clement Greenberg and Michael Fried are the art critics I am constantly working with and against. Fried being the key critic who implies the use of the term “misfire” in his essay “Art and Objecthood” which is a defense of modernism and polemic against minimalism, whose effects he calls “surefire”. [“Surefire” is a term Fried would have found in J.L. Austin’s Speech Act Theory, and you can see the traces of Fried’s first encounter with speech acts in his great essay Morris Louis, especially where he talks about Louis’s lostness.] The grip Greenberg’s and Fried’s criticism has on this moment in art is unlike the hold any other critics have on any other period. I love reading both of them and I hate the fact it is so difficult to find points on which I disagree with them absolutely. But I do find many points of difference and the moments of difference that count for me the most have emerged from looking at and responding to the painting they care most about and not from scrutinizing their texts which has been the usual course of attack for the past 40-50 years. In this regard I would call myself a close reader of painting. And I think Greenberg’s and Fried’s criticism falls short of what we call “close reading” today. In the 1950s and 1960s close reading was something associated with the formal literary criticism of the new critics. Today, close reading is something that has been carried to new heights, especially by the d-word – deconstruction—a word I don’t want to rehabilitate today; Im happy to simply use the phrase close reading which is where I take the greatest insights of Jacques Derrida’s and Paul de Man’s works to be focussed. Both de Man and Derrida use theory that is extant in the text’s they encounter; they do not apply theory. My own preference is for de Man’s version of close reading: he reads for tropes, tropological systems and their remainders. That’s what I do, and I think its a crucial step beyond the methodological quandaries current art history finds itself in, and I also think it is a political and ethical necessity today. [In terms of contemporary art history I would place T. J. Clark’s The Sight of Death in this tradition, and describe it as a exemplary example of close reading.]
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